Dartmoor landowner who won wild camping ban may be putting rare beetle at risk

Exclusive: Alexander Darwall, who said he brought case to improve conservation, is releasing pheasants near protected woodland

The landowner who took Dartmoor national park to court to ban wild camping may be putting a rare beetle at risk by releasing pheasants next to an ecologically important woodland, against the advice of environmental experts.

This is despite him having said he pushed for a wild camping ban in order to “improve conservation of the Dartmoor commons”, arguing that campers damage the national park with litter and disturbance.

Last week, the right to wild camp in England and Wales was lost after Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager, succeeded in his case against Dartmoor national park. It was the last place it was possible to wild camp without seeking permission.

Darwall, Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, brought the case against the national park authority, arguing that the right to wild camp on the moors never existed. The owner of the 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) Blachford estate on southern Dartmoor offers pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals on his land.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters from the Right to Roam campaign are to march on his land in protest at having their right to wild camp taken away. They are outraged that landowners this week including Darwall have struck a deal with the national park in which they are paid to allow camping on small portions of their land. Campaigners have called it a “stitch-up”.

Natural England, the government body in charge of enforcing conservation measures in national parks, has warned the estate not to release pheasants near Dendles Wood, a fragment of temperate rainforest on the southern edge of Dartmoor, adjacent to the Blachford estate. It is protected as a national nature reserve (NNR) and site of special scientific interest (SSSI), and falls within the Dartmoor special area of conservation (SAC). The letter to the estate contained details on the necessary maintenance to retain these statuses, including not releasing pheasants.

In a conservation plan for the wood, released under freedom of information laws, Natural England says that “operations likely to damage the special interest” of Dendles Wood include “the release into the site of any wild, feral or domestic animal” and “introduction of and changes in game and waterfowl management and hunting practice”.

The very rare blue ground beetle is put under pressure by the release of the birds, according to Natural England. The plan says “high pheasant stocking rates are a threat to this species”because pheasants prey on the beetles.

Dendles Wood is one of only a handful of sites in the UK where the large and distinctive beetle makes its home. It is found at just 15 sites in England and Wales, eight of which are in Dartmoor national park.

A blue ground beetle.
A blue ground beetle. Photograph: Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

Despite this, local residents have found a pheasant release pen on land owned by the Darwall family that lies less than 250 metres from the edge of the NNR. Photos show the release pen has multiple entrances and exits for pheasants, meaning they are free to enter the surrounding woods. Volunteer rangers have said that pheasants are one of the most common birds to be found in Dendles Wood.

The estate also appears to be breaching the licence to release pheasants to shoot. It does not appear to have reported to Natural England the number or density of pheasants it releases near the wood, even though this is one of the conditions of the GL43 general licence under which landowners are permitted to release pheasants within 500 metres of an SAC.

The environmental campaigner and author Guy Shrubsole said: “It’s ironic that one of the reasons stated by the Darwalls for bringing their legal case against wild camping was its alleged impacts on Dartmoor’s ecology.

“The reality is that responsible wild camping leaves no trace. The same cannot be said of the 50 million pheasants that are released by landowners into the British countryside every year.

“Now the public have had their access rights sharply curtailed. The landowner’s pheasants, meanwhile, still have a full right to roam over a national nature reserve.”

The Dartmoor national park authority is consulting with its legal team with a view to appealing against the decision. Lawyers for the park have said that ecologically damaging actions by the estate could be a factor in any appeal.

Darwall was contacted via his lawyer but had no comment to make.


Helena Horton Environment reporter

The GuardianTramp

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